I’ve been falling behind with Dinah Jefferies’ novels; after reading her first, The Separation, back in 2014, she has since had another three books published, none of which I had read until picking up The Tea Planter’s Wife a few weeks ago. I regret not reading it sooner, because I loved it and am now desperate to read her other two, The Silk Merchant’s Daughter and Before the Rains.
The Tea Planter’s Wife is set in Ceylon (the former name for Sri Lanka) in the 1920s and 30s, and begins with the arrival of newly married Gwendolyn Hooper who has come from England to join her husband, Laurence, on his tea plantation. Gwen is only nineteen years old and barely really knows her husband, a widower much older than herself. Settling into married life proves to be more difficult than she’d expected, particularly as she also has to get used to a whole new culture and climate. It doesn’t help that Laurence’s sister Verity comes to live with them and makes it obvious that she resents Gwen marrying her brother. To make matters worse, Gwen is convinced that Laurence is trying to hide the truth surrounding the death of his first wife, Caroline.
Feeling lonely and neglected, Gwen is grateful for the friendship of Savi Ravasinghe, a Sinhalese portrait painter, and is mystified as to why Laurence seems to disapprove of him so much. Then something happens which makes Gwen think that Laurence was right to distrust Savi – and which throws her already troubled life into even more turmoil.
With its evocative setting and aura of mystery and secrecy, this is a wonderfully atmospheric novel with an almost gothic feel at times. Throughout the first half of the novel, in particular, I was constantly reminded of one of my favourite books, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca: the naive, inexperienced young woman; the mysterious older husband who becomes increasingly distant as soon as the wedding is over; the first wife who, even in death, still casts a shadow over the household. The similarities lessened as the story continued, though, and more themes and elements were introduced.
Ceylon, as it was known then, is a country I know very little about, so I found it interesting to read of the racial and political tensions between the various groups of people who live on the island – the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the British planters. With Gwen being a newcomer and unfamiliar with the way of life, we see things through her eyes and share her experiences as she tries to adapt to her new home. Gwen finds the living standards of the plantation workers particularly difficult to accept and her well-meaning attempts to improve things for them often get her into trouble. And yet this doesn’t feel to me like an author simply projecting her own modern views onto a character from a bygone time, as often happens in historical fiction, but more a way of showing that Gwen was a decent person who wanted to help in any small way she could, with a natural sympathy for children, the sick and the vulnerable, whatever their colour or status in society.
The setting plays an important part in the story, but so do the people, the decisions they make and the ways in which they communicate – or fail to communicate – with each other. This is the sort of book where you find yourself becoming frustrated with the characters because they just won’t tell each other the truth…but at the same time you understand why they feel they can’t!
Having enjoyed The Tea Planter’s Wife so much I’m pleased that I still have two more books by Dinah Jefferies to read. I just need to decide which one to read next!